Monday 5 April 2010

Review of Les Troyen in Amsterdam

To Amsterdam for a rather wet weekend which culminated in the first night of Berlioz's Les Troyens performed by the Netherlands Opera at het muziektheater in Amsterdam on 4th April 2010. We missed Pierre Audi's production when it was new in 2003 and so welcomed the opportunity to see the revival.

The production had sets designed by George Tsypin (with costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer). For the first two acts (the Troy acts) Tsypin's set was based around three horizontal bars across the stage, each made from a different colour of moulded, scupted translucent glass like substance. These formed both backdrops to the action as well as being substantial enough to form platforms for the action. The three platforms moved up and down as well as tilting, moving back and forth. The back drop was an abstract projection. Initially the colour scheme was relatively pale colours, which were off-set by the black worn by the Trojans. The only strong colour was the red on Cassandra's cloak. Eventually the colour red starts to see in, as it became identified with the Greeks. The Trojan horse when it appeared (as a head which descended down from above) was suffused with red and this colour took over the the whole production by the time the Trojan women committed suicide in Act 2.

For the remaining 3 acts the horizontal glass bars became vertical items which punctuated the set. The base colours remained pale, particularly because the Carthiginians wore pale cream/beige outfits.

The opera opened with the chorus of Trojans arrayed on the platforms, providing not a dynamic, vigorous stage image, but a rather stylised static one. The use of the chorus remained very static, providing stylised images which were emphasised by the use of co-ordinated movement and hand gestures.

The first two acts were very much Cassandre's story and she was on-stage for virtually all the time (except for the opening scene of Act 2 when the ghost of Hector appears to Enee). Cassandre was played by the Dutch dramatic soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, making her role debut. Westbroek's Cassandre was a tortured, rather witch doctor-like figure, sung with a beautiful flexible tone. Westbroek wasn't a huge voiced, dominating singer, instead she was more subtle and sympathetic. Though I must admit that there were moments when I would have liked more edge to the tone. She was beautifully partnered by the Chorebe of Jean-Francois Lapointe. Not only was Lapointe a native French speaker, but he sang Chorebe with nicely focussed tone, without the over emphasis on dramatic vibrato which I have found in other recent performances.

This wasn't a performance which was about big dramatic voices. In the pit conductor John Nelson kept things under control and emphasised subtlety rather than bombast. This was particularly noticeable in the casting of Enee, sung by the American lyric tenor Bryan Hymel. Frankly, Hymel seemed to find Enee's opening scenes no easier than other bigger voiced tenors. His lyric flexibility was welcome, but his upper notes rather lacked freedom.

For the processing of the Trojan treasures, we were introduced to the besuited, bald rather odd looking dancers and actors who popped up rather too much in the opera. But it must be admitted that for the dance movements in Act 1, Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn's choreography fitter rather well.

By the first interval (end of the Trojan acts) the production had made a strong impression, and we looked forward to how the remaining acts would play out.

For Act 3, Didon (Yvonne Naef) was rather formally dressed with a huge fur coat (strange for North-African Carthage) and her hair up, the chorus seated all expecting to watch to dancing. Unfortunately, the danced parts of the Carthage acts rather let the production down. In Act 3, truncated parts of the horizontal glass bars became bases on which the dancers appeared, their dancing seeming not related to Berlioz's scenario and frankly rather risible.

Things improved with the appearance of the Trojans, which upped the dramatic impetus. One of the big positive things about Audi's production was that he dramatised what Berlioz gave him rather than inventing extra details. This gave the production rather a fine clarity, singers appeared and disappeared according to the requirements of the music rather than Audi inventing extra details. Another big advantage was the way that Audi and Tsypin use the various platforms and the stage's lift, to keep the action moving. Scenes flowed naturally into each other without long waits.

Things went a bit awry again at the opening of Act 4 in the Royal Hunt and Storm. The scenario was not quite that which Berlioz intended, but might have worked had not Audi and Tsypin decided to turn the more dramatic sections into a son et lumiere involving the whole scenery (certainly striking, but lacking dramatic clarity). For the duet between Anna (Charlotte Hellekant) and Narbal (Alistair Miles), we were again back on track.

But then. Audi's intention was obviously to focus attention on Didon, just the way attention focussed on Cassandre in Acts 1 and 2. For the remaining dance movements of Act 4, the drama was refocussed as a dream of Didon's. This might have worked but I found the choreography rather less than enlightening and at times risible. Then with the conclusion of the danced portions, Audi's dramaturgical clarity returned.

In some productions I have found that the directors need to invent extra action rather ruins these closing moments of Act 4. Instead, Audi brought on singers when needed by Berlioz and the results were musically and dramaturgically convincing.

At first Yvonne Naef had seemed a rather stiff Didon, with some problems in her upper voice. But by the end of Act 4 both she and Hymel had warmed up. Audi's staging of the concluding duet wasn't quite magical, but it worked. And allowed Hymel and Naef to give of their musical best.

The dramaturgical strength of the production continued into Act 5 and Audi seemed to completely re-gain the momentum from Acts 1 and 2, with Tsypin's scenery becoming a series of broken spaces in which the action takes place. Hymel seemed to draw strength as the drama progressed and his Enee was ultimately everything you might desire. The lyric nature of Hymel's voice, which had proved limiting at first, was musically a strong feature of the final act.

Similarly Naef's Didon seemed to relax as the acts progressed. Her upper register became more flexible, less stressed and she became a noble and moving Didon. Perhaps not the finest Didon that I have seen, but a very notably one; noble of bearing, and all the more heart-breaking when she collapses at the end.

Charlotte Hellekant was a flirtatious, suitably contrasting Anna. Alistair Miles did not seem entirely comfortable as Narbal, it didn't seem to suit that cut of his voice the way the role works for a bass like Robert Lloyd. Greg Warren, as Iopas, had a rather too high-tension voice for the role, which needs a greater degree of lyric beauty than he could provide. But Sebastien Droy as Hylas provided all the lyric beauty required in his solo.

Conductor John Nelson included the Sinon episode in Act 1, but made no significant changes to Act 5 as John Eliot Gardiner did at the Chatelet in 2003. Nelson's conducting was exemplary, he and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra gave a fine performance and provided strong support to the singers.

This wasn't the best Les Troyens that I've ever seen. But it was certainly the most dramatic and the most brilliantly designed. For most of the production, Audi's personen-regie brought a clarity to the piece which was enviable. Though it has to be admitted that there were moments, especially towards the end, when it was a production about (rather than of) Les Troyens, there were just too many moment which lacked dramaturgical clarity and you wondered what on earth was going on, this applied not so much to the singers as to the actors and dancers. It worked best if you knew the opera well. This wasn't a production for the faint hearted, but it was certainly stunning to look at and highly intelligent.

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